As his followers mail out thousands of copies of apocalyptic “revelations from God” purportedly authored by imprisoned polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs, former members say he is setting out increasingly extreme rules for his people.
It has some comparing Jeffs to violent 1970s polygamous sect leader Ervil LeBaron and concerned about where he is taking the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Several former FLDS members say the new requirements implemented by leaders loyal to Jeffs reach deep into followers’ personal lives: Men are barred from having sex with their wives, families are required to get rid of their children’s toys, girls under 18 are no longer to hold jobs or have cellphones.
Starting this year, members have been required to hand over all their possessions to leadership, and are given back only what the bishop deems necessary, said Willie Jessop, former church spokesman and current supporter of a rival sect prophet.
Bikes, trampolines and all-terrain vehicles, once-common sights in the FLDS home base of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, can be seen for sale on the side of the highway. Those requirements had never been a part of FLDS culture, Jessop said, though, unknown to the majority of members, the elite group that Jeffs drew to the Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado, Texas, was already following them.
“You forfeit control of your destiny and subject yourself to them. You have nothing that you control,” Jessop said. After members sign over their assets, he said, they’re required to undergo extensive interviews to determine if they are worthy of FLDS membership. If they are found to be unworthy, members can be excommunicated from the community with little more than the shirt on their backs, he said. Among the requirements is ignorance of Jeffs’ conviction for sexually assaulting girls, ages 12 and 15, whom he took as underage wives in Texas, Jessop said. Jeffs, 56, was sentenced to life in prison in August.
Even as people are excommunicated, others are choosing to leave when faced with the new edicts. Combined, up to 10 people a day are leaving the FLDS, Jessop estimated. That means a smaller group of only the most faithful, obedient followers are left, former FLDS members say.
But with a new reported deadline of Dec. 31 to prove faithfulness and give $5,000 or be excommunicated, aid workers are concerned that a large number of people with very little to their names could soon be looking for help.
“We are very concerned,” said Tonia Tewell, executive director of Holding out Help, a nonprofit for people who are leaving polygamous groups. Her organization, she said, is already taxed.
Jessop calls it a “social crisis.”
“This is a level of abuse of power and creation of victims that is unparalleled and the fallout of it is going to be felt for a number of years,” Jessop said. “We’re only one step away from Ervil LeBaron.”
LeBaron, who founded the offshoot polygamous sect Church of the Lamb of God in 1972, wrote a 400-page Book of the New Covenants while imprisoned for ordering the death of a rival leader. In it, he imposed the death penalty for any member who broke sect commandments, and the FBI said his writings influenced his family members to carry out murders in Texas in 1988. [...]
Some familiar with the sect reject the idea that members could ever turn violent. Ken Driggs, an attorney and writer who has been studying the group for more than 20 years and has many friends within it, said this year has marked a more natural period of turmoil not uncommon to religious societies.
Violence is “just not in the cards. That’s not who these people are,” he said. There’s a lot of hot, violent rhetoric down there from time to time, but that’s as far as it’s going to go.”
Tewell, with Holding out Help, expressed a similar sentiment.
“The people inside are just as sweet as can be; it’s the leaders who are going haywire right now and making all these demands,” she said. “This is common every so often, for them to purify and cleanse, and that’s exactly what this is, a purge.”